Student’s photos seized



By Paolo Cisneros

David Fullarton, senior in FAA, never thought taking pictures could land him behind bars.

But for a few scary minutes on Aug. 31, he said that’s exactly what happened.

Fullarton said he was photographing the Chicago Transit Authority’s O’Hare Airport station at around 2:15 p.m. when he was approached by two Chicago police officers and asked to explain himself.

When he told the officers that the photographs were for a class project at the University, he was asked to provide some form of identification and subsequently placed in a chain-link holding cell for several minutes while they ran a background check, he said.

When his record came up clean, the officers let him go but not before demanding he immediately delete all the photographs he had taken. He was also told that photography on the CTA property was forbidden unless the photographer has a permit.

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A press release on the CTA’s Web site, however, says that amateur photography is allowed. The policy was later confirmed by a CTA spokesperson.

“It’s excessive,” Fullarton said. “I think questioning people in that manner is a tremendous waste of resources.”

Steven Beckett, director of trial advocacy in the College of Law, agreed.

“I can’t imagine that it breaks the law to take photos in a public place,” he said. “It just makes no sense.”

The Legal Affairs office of the Chicago Police Department declined to comment. Calls to the department’s media office were not returned. Fullarton said that while some members of the police department are to blame, the officers themselves were not entirely at fault.

“They were on the phone with their supervisor on and off, and I’m assuming that he said ‘This is what you have to do,'” he said. “I don’t think the agencies themselves are to blame, but rather the ignorance of a few people in management.”

‘Terrorist times’

Fullarton said the officers he dealt with were extremely professional in their interactions with him, but their handling of the situation denied him of some of his basic legal rights.

“I don’t mind getting asked questions,” he said. “But you don’t put somebody in a cell and tell them to delete their pictures and tell them what they’re doing is wrong when it’s not.”

Beckett said Fullarton’s account of his detainment struck him as an unlawful seizure, and the police had no right to do what they did.

He added that once Fullarton took the photos, they became his property, making any police order to destroy them illegal.

“I suppose in these terrorist times people are making excuses for police doing all sorts of things, but the more they do it, the more they erode our liberties and the less freedom we have,” he said. “It’s a sad story.”

Other legal issues aside, the incident has Fullarton worried that he now has some sort of criminal record. The officers insinuated such an action might be taken, he said, but he was given no citation or case number.

“Whatever that red mark is next to my name, they need to get that off because it shouldn’t be there,” he said.

Steven Helle, professor of journalism at the University, agreed that Fullarton did not commit an offense.

“It sounds like a First Amendment offense to me,” he said. “Since 9-11 there has been much concern with photographing public transit of all sorts, but such concerns should never trump the First Amendment.”

Looking ahead

After reflecting on the situation for nearly three weeks, Fullarton holds no grudge against the Chicago Police Department. The problem, he believes, boils down to individuals within the agency.

Since the incident occurred, he has sent letters explaining his situation to agencies like the American Civil Liberties Union and the CTA as well as U.S. senators Dick Durbin and Barack Obama. He has also filed a complaint with the Chicago Police Department.

So far he has only been contacted by the ACLU. Fullarton’s case was entered into their database and he was told he would be contacted by an attorney at a later date.

On a national level, Fullarton said he believes the federal government has a responsibility to re-evaluate many of its post-Sept. 11 policies, such as the color-coded terror warning system.

Doing so, he believes, would help spare innocent people from undeserved and illegal searches and interrogations.

“Things like that just induce paranoia, and they don’t effectively address any problems,” he said.

Either way, Fullarton said he hopes something will be done to correct the problem at O’Hare.

“Particular people are just doing things their way rather than by the rules,” he said. “Those are the people that I have a problem with.”